The controversy over the new Saudi-backed golf league hit a fever pitch last week as it held a tournament hosted by Donald Trump at his eponymous course in New Jersey.

But apart from some fawning coverage by the fashion press, scant attention was being paid to a fashion show on Manhattan’s W. 23rd Street that is another facet of a continuing Saudi effort to pass itself off as modern and progressive.

“SAUDI HERITAGE; PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE FASHION EXHIBITION,” read the hand bill being passed out by a well groomed young American at the entrance.

To Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, the Saudi past goes back two decades to 9/11. The entrance to another exhibition, the 9/11 Memorial Museum, just over two miles south of the present fashion show, has photos of the 19 hijackers, 17 of whom were Saudi, as was Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. An FBI report made public earlier this year found that “there is a 50/50 chance” a Saudi intelligence operative named Omar al-Bayoumi “had advance knowledge the 9/11 terrorist attacks were to occur.” The report says that at the time of the attack al-Bayoumi was being paid by Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.. One still unanswered question is whether Bandar was aware that al-Bayoumi provided logistical support to the first two hijackers who arrived in America in 2000.

The more recent Saudi past is reflected by another report, this from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence regarding the death and dismemberment by bone saw of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the executive summary of the February 2021 report reads. “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

The summary adds, “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

With the entire kingdom presently under his control, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is steering towards a future described on an official governmental website, “Saudi Vision 2030.”

“A roadmap drawn up by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, to harness the strengths God bestowed upon us–our strategic position, investment power and place at the center of Arab and Islamic worlds,” the site says. “The full attention of the Kingdom, and our Leadership, is on harnessing our potential to achieve our ambitions.”

It goes on, “Since the launch of the vision, we have built a foundation, during which unprecedented reforms were made in the public sector’s operating model, the economy and society as a whole. This laid the foundations of success for the future.”

The reforms included a moderate relaxation of restrictions on what women can wear in public. There was also a modest expansion in the roles they can assume in the workplace. A notable example was the 2019 appointment of the first woman to serve as a foreign envoy. Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud was named the Saudi ambassador to the United States in February 2019. Her father held that same position at the time of 9/11, and her appointment could be seen as a way of telling Americans who called for the abettors to be held accountable for the attack to piss off. It also may have been simple indifference.

The timing of the appointment suggests another message, coming as it did five months after the butchering of Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. The use of a bone saw on an ultimately harmless critic may have caused many people to view MBS as a murderous barbarian, but then there was also this historical first for Saudi women. And with his Vision 2030, MBS was saying there would be more firsts and great things to come.

On July 26, the Saudi Fashion Commission under the auspices of the Saudi Ministry of Culture opened the Saudi 100 Brands NYC Fashion Exhibition, drawn from 1,500 Saudi designers. Ambassador Princess Reema—a figure with links to the Saudi past, present & future—gave a speech at the opening of the 12-day show.

“The collections that you see here are inspired by Arabia, but they are made for the world,” Reema said. “Creativity is not born in one country. Culture is not defined by a border. And what you are about to see is a symbol that has nothing to do with politics, that has nothing to do with governments, but has everything to do with the human spirit.”

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon, Michael Daly/The Daily Beast

Late Friday morning, West 23rd Street was teeming with New Yorkers and tourists, but they bustled on past the young man with a stack of handbills out in front of the Saudi fashion show. Other than the staff, only three people were inside, one a reporter who put on a mask as he entered.

“Masks are optional,” a security guard by the entrance said.

Neither the guard nor the two women at the check-in counter were wearing face coverings. But the whole exhibition seemed to be a huge covering up of some other kind. Or maybe the better way to look at the show was as a golden bone saw; finery put on display by a barbarian murderer. There are dazzling variations on traditional abayas, ones that a woman might want even though the religious police have stopped forcing them to wear the robe-like dresses. The first section of the show has “MODEST” stenciled on the wall in big black letters. The mannequins throughout the exhibition have no facial features, so veils are not an issue.

The show also has garments for men, including an elegant outfit from a fashion line called JINA headed by a woman, Princess Noura bint Talal Al Saud. An explanatory note says the piece was inspired by what is “typically worn during the ‘Majdi Ardha’, the dance of war and victory.”

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon, Michael Daly/The Daily Beast

Some of those who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center or were nearly killed themselves believe that more than 17 Saudis sought cause to dance the Majdi Ardha on that horrific Tuesday morning 20 years ago that we have pledged never to forget. Those who want to hold the Saudis to account include members of the group 9/11 Justice, who were gathered on Friday morning outside a public library near the Trump golf club that is hosting the Saudi-backed LIV tournament. They had assembled a distance from the club’s main gate to make clear they were there not so much to protest as to speak truth about the Saudis effort to “sportwash” and those who are party to it.

The third of the four speakers was Juliette Scauso. She was 4 years old when her father, Firefighter Dennis Scauso, became one of 19 men in his hazmat unit who died at the World Trade Center. She is now 25 and a medical student.

“How much money does it take to turn your back on your country, on the American people?” she asked. “The 9/11 families would give any amount of money to see our loved ones again, just to have one last hug, one conversation, one more round of golf.”

The murdered firefighter’s daughter was not aware of the Saudi fashion exhibition until a Daily Beast reporter told her about it on Saturday.

“I had no idea,” she said. “But, I know in general that [the Saudis] are trying to change their image. And honestly they should not be allowed to operate on our soil with impunity until we get accountability and justice.”

She said of the continuing Saudi effort to use their great wealth to evade any responsibility.

“It’s just kind of shocking and it’s angering,” she said. “It’s been 20 years…And we’re still fighting. “

The fashion show closes on August 7. The Saudis will continue the golf league and other efforts to gild the bone and lead us to forget what we never should.

Anybody who wants fashion worthy of New York should try to get a T-shirt made by someone in Scauso’s group. It reads:


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